On housing, Toronto council votes in favour of rooming house measure

Earlier this week Toronto city council voted in favour of a motion that would finally legalize rooming houses in the city. The decision sent shockwaves through the mayor’s party. When he was first elected…

On housing, Toronto council votes in favour of rooming house measure

Earlier this week Toronto city council voted in favour of a motion that would finally legalize rooming houses in the city.

The decision sent shockwaves through the mayor’s party. When he was first elected Toronto’s mayor in 2014, a decision to legalize some 150 tiny rooms for under-18s rocked some constituents.

Since then, it has been one of the biggest unravelling issues for Mr. Tory, along with an issue in which the mayor has led: how to deal with a glut of “ghost” homes that have proliferated in Toronto over the past few years.

Toronto council votes to legalize rooming houses. The decision sends shockwaves through Mayor John Tory’s party. Had they lost their way? Read more

The rooming house motion, supported by the mayor, passed with a 33-20 vote on Monday. Though it was initially opposed by his close ally, the mayor’s deputy mayor Josh Matlow, he later voted in favour. The vote came as a surprise to many who had believed the zoning crackdown the mayor promised in his campaign was something he had been positioning as a major part of his leadership.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Mr. Matlow said.

Mr. Tory made his name on more general-purpose policies, tackling homelessness and the city’s exploding real estate market. But growing pressure over the past few years from housing activists and those opposed to the spread of “ghost” homes has led him to put this issue front and centre.

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For the first time since he came to power, Mr. Tory made an issue of his fellow council members’ lack of sensitivity to the needs of students and renters in a province that has a few ordinances already in place that regulate the size of rooming houses.

“There was a broad consensus on the council that this should be a city-wide effort, not a provincial effort,” said chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who supported the motion. “So I’m a little perplexed why some have felt the need to belittle the importance of that agenda for the sake of their agenda.”

But for a slew of LGBTQ rights activists – who had lobbied the council in the past – some recent municipal decisions about the number of “sadrooms”, along with the proposed tenancy code changes that give people the right to refuse housing to people who had attended a sex-work site, added up to a crumbling relationship between Mr. Tory and his own council.

“What has happened over the last few years has been a streak of ugly behaviour and misogyny,” said Jennie Pennesi, president of the organization Out Toronto, a group for queer and transgender people, at a recent rally ahead of the vote. “Whatever diversity he had in terms of mind is gone, as is trust.”

In May, the city’s ombudsman found that top Tory aide Brian Mayes told city staff to remove a reference to Toronto Pride from draft policy that would set out how the city would deal with street harassment, including that caused by street sex workers.

Activists also claim to have evidence from digital ad archives that Mr. Tory may have made anti-LGBTQ comments. However, that is being investigated, and Mr. Tory has denied any wrongdoing.

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On Wednesday, Mr. Tory tried to downplay the rift with his council. During a radio interview, he said the group “for sure” should have been more connected to the public and held town halls more often, and accused the group of trying to “distract people from the issue at hand.”

For some, that latter point has proven deeply problematic.

“They should have seen it coming,” said Jennifer Duffin, executive director of MaRS Discovery District, the local innovation hub that Mr. Tory was a founding partner. Ms. Duffin was hired by Mr. Tory and is one of his main champions in the LGBT community.

“The community, the people who come to the table in conversation, are the ones who really have to feel like they’re speaking as a community, not as an elected official. I find it somewhat frustrating that some of the attitudes that some of the councillors came out with were discouraging to community input and

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